Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tzav (Shabbat Hagadol) 5759/1999

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Tzav (Shabbat Hagadol) 5759/1999

Burnt Offerings on the Altar

Rabbi Moshe Raziel

Institute for Advanced Torah Studies

Three flames were commanded to be kept burning on the altar, as Maimonides explains:[1]

Three arrays of fire are to be made atop the altar each day: the first is a large fire on which the tamid and other sacrifices are burned; the second, to the side and smaller, is for taking coals in the pan to burn incense each day; the third has nothing on it but is only to fulfill the commandment concerning the fire, namely, "A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar" (Lev. 6:6). According to received tradition, this is derived from Scripture as follows: "where it is burned upon the altar" (v. 2) indicates the large array of fire, "while the fire on the altar is kept going on it" (ibid.) indicates the second array for the incense, and "the fire on the altar shall be kept burning" (v. 5) indicates the third array to maintain the fire.

All in all, Maimonides cites three verse in this week's reading to derive the halakhah concerning the three arrays of fire that we were commanded to make on the altar daily. Let us try to fathom the significance of this commandment and what we can learn from it.

The controversy among the rishonim, early rabbinic authorities, regarding the purpose of sacrificial worship is well-known. Maimonides maintained[2] that since it was customary throughout the world to build shrines and to sacrifice animals to the images set up in these temples, and since human beings tend toward that to which they are accustomed, the Creator commanded that we worship Him in this manner; but Nahmanides disagreed with him. A detailed discussion of their differences of opinion can be found in the writings of Abarbanel:[3]

Let me explain you the opinion of the Rabbi [Maimonides] on this issue, who said that the sacrifices had a second intention [i.e. Maimonides' explanation in the Guide]. He did not say that they were not motivated by the first intention. This way of putting it indicates that there were two intentions regarding sacrifice: the first intention and the second intention. The first intention is to bring people closer to G-d, submitting to Him and believing in His existence, His oneness and His providence. It was with this intention that Adam and Noah brought their sacrifices. The Rabbi does not deny that this first intention exists in the commandments regarding sacrifice, because this actually was their first intention.

Abarbanel then cites the second intention of Maimonides, summing it up as follows: "If there were two intentions concerning sacrifice, according to Maimonides, the first is as Nahmanides suggested, and the second, ...." Thus, in Abarbanel's opinion, Maimonides and Nahmanides do not disagree, rather Maimonides supplemented the intention cited by Nahmanides with an additional intention.

If "the first intention" of sacrifices is agreed upon by all, it seems that the commandment to maintain three fires teaches us about three central aspects of this intention that are intended to instruct us in worshipping our Maker: to draw near to Him, the humble ourselves before Him, and to believe in His existence, oneness and providence.

The first array of fire is a large array on which the sacrifices are offered; it is not to be touched and nothing taken from it for any other worship. This commandment is derived from the first phrase (v. 2): "The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar" [hee ha'olah 'al mokedah]. This burning point on the altar is self-contained, is not transferable, and serves no other purpose than burning the offerings. In other words, by offering sacrifices on it a person draws closer to G-d. Indeed, there is a wonderful Midrash interpretation on these words of verse 2:[4] "Rabbi Levi said: hee ha'olah 'al mokedah, the etiquette of praise teaches--whoever is self-praising ultimately is punished by none other than fire." The Maggid of Polonnoye explained this statement according to Kli Yakar: anyone who offers a sacrifice must take care to avoid two things in which Cain and Abel, the first to bring sacrifices, failed: 1) not to bring an offering from something which is inferior--Cain's failing; 2) to bring on one's own initiative and not to wait until moved to imitate the actions of one's fellow, Abel's failing. The Maggid writes, "He brought from the firstborn of his flock, but his aim was to make himself equal to Cain, who 'brought an offering to the Lord.' Since he saw his brother do this, he too wished to make an offering, so that he could be proud and elevate himself [Heb. 'olah] likewise; but for this fire on the altar he is doomed to Hell [Heb. 'al mokedah]." The Torah teaches us a preliminary lesson in worshipping the Lord--we must worship according to our own abilities, without imitating and copying our fellow, with the aim of self-aggrandizement. This is the first center of fire. Whoever fails in this, goes up in fire--is doomed to Hell.

The purpose of the second fire is to provide fire for the incense pan, to burn incense within--a source of fire for inner worship in the inner sanctuary. This sort of fire, too, must be burned by each person himself so that it can be used inside his being to offer incense there to the Lord from the inner recesses of the soul.

The third center of fire is entirely for the purpose of maintaining the fire; this flame must always remain kindled, so that if the other two fires go out the person is not left in pitch darkness, without any source of light or heat; a person should leave within himself a spot where the fire is maintained, so that if the other two fires should happen to become extinguished, fire can be taken from this spot and used to rekindle the fire that went out. No matter what, it must all come from within the person; fire is never to be taken from someone else. Each person and his own fire, each person and his own worship. G-d forbid that a person try to take from another or imitate another, for Rabbi Levi's remark applies to such a person: "the etiquette of praise--whoever is self-praising ultimately is punished by none other than fire." That was the failing of Abel, who later paid with his life.

The fire on the altar is like the inner fire of every person. There are three centers of flame, each serving its own purpose, each with its own objective; and the ultimate purpose served by all this is that each person worship his Maker himself, according to his own abilities, maintaining a flame in his soul, keeping one source of fire in reserve lest the other sources of fire go out.

[1] Yad ha-Hazakah, Hilkhot temidin u-musafin, 2: 4-5.

[2] Guide for the Perplexed 2.32.

[3] Abarbanel's Commentary on the Torah, Introduction to Leviticus, ch. 4.

[4] From Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, by R. Jacob Joseph Ha-Kohen, the Maggid of Polonnoye, Parshat Tzav.